Some people label the Culture novels by Iain M Banks “space opera”. To me that is making light of them. Opera isn’t serious. It is an art form which has survived mainly because enjoying it has been perceived as a mark of sophistication by the upper classes; which in turn has led to the striving upper middle classes making it an affectation, to show how worthy they are.
To me baroque and opera are synonymous.
A Culture novel is something else entirely. It is dead serious. Pretentious, even. It is often an open criticism of our present society – economical system, polity, behaviour – and when it isn’t it offers the question about what is human, anyway?
The Culture is extremist. It is anarchic in that management is localised and in that responsibility is anonymous; it is libertine in its view on personal freedom; and it is despotic in how it uses people as pawns. Many of the key features of the Culture bear a striking similarity to the Soviet Union, except no one knows who to blame.
The Player of Games is a point in case.
Gurgeh is a player of some renown, famous for mastering any and every game that is set before him. When we meet him he is starting to get fed up with the routine and so is open to get manoeuvred into a spot were he either loses his reputation or do something he never thought he’d do – travel off the Orbital where he lives, away from his social context, his safe zone, to engage a distant civilization, a possible enemy to the Culture.
No one in the Culture’s Contact section – responsible for handling contact with other polities – tells him what is going on. Instead he is manipulated, step by step, to do what Contact wants him to do. That, to me, is not honest behaviour. It expresses distrust in the individual and it is not a feature I want in a polity I support.
Despite this I enjoy the Culture novels and The Player of Games is no exception. Rather – I loved it. Brilliant pacing, brilliant story-telling, brilliant world-building. The words transforms to images before my eyes so that the story is played out in front of me, literally, as I read it. And while other of the books set in the Culture – such as Consider Phlebas or Use of Weapons – leaves a flat or repugnant taste in the mouth after reading, a love-hate relationship with the book, Player of Games is surprisingly smooth, despite its often vile imagery; an imagery used to amplify the dark side of our own society, I believe.
A good read, definitely recommended. And proof that age is nothing to a good book – it was originally published in 1988. Doesn’t show its age anywhere.
If this book comes in two different editions, as it seems it does, I want to note that I’ve read the UK edition.